Seeds of a Nation

Every form of greatness has its beginning, and the making of a great nation is no different. The rallying cry “Make America Great” is a catchphrase used by more than one presidential contender. But when used with the adverb “again” at the end of the cry, “Make America Great Again,” it implies a vision of a past history that was greater than the present. But this rallying cry of today says nothing about what America has lost or when. It never named a time when America was greater than now nor identified what made America great in the past and lost in the present history. In my search for this lost American greatness, I asked:

  • Was America great when human beings were sold into slavery from its beginning in 1619 until 1865?
  • Was it great when women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920?
  • Was it great when segregation was systematic and legal until 1954?
  • Was it great during World War II when 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps?
  • Was it in the post-World War II  decade when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy produced a series of accusations and investigations of treason to expose a supposed communist infiltration in the U.S. government, and many have been blacklisted without evidence and lost their jobs? 
  • Was it great when Native Americans were displaced from their homelands to Indian territory to open 25 million acres for settlement by European Americans in 1830?

Oh, wait a minute! Those American settlers were Europeans? This begs the next question: What is an American?

In my previous article, “The fellowship of Language and Culture,” I discuss how language and culture are intertwined. With that in mind, I began my search with the origin of the American language.

Shucks! I found no such thing as “American Language.” What Americans speak is a language called English, a composite of borrowed languages broken in the following manner:

  • 26 % Germanic
  • 29% French
  • 29% Latin
  • 6% Greek
  • 10% from other languages

Altogether, French and Latin (both European Romance languages) account for 58% of the vocabulary used in today’s English. So many seeds, sturdy seeds blown by many winds, adapt to wherever they land, and they become Americans without a language to call their own! Yet, they have a strong identity with an existence called “American” that does not speak a language native to that territory.

This gets curioser and curioser.

To answer my first question, when was America greater than now, I conclude that the fundamental ingredient is its people. Americans are a conglomerate of immigrants who have learned from each other, exchanged ideas, absorbed different cultures, and continue to do so with the new immigrants arriving from new corners of the world each day. They bring the panoply of their culture with them and decorate the American fabric. They learn to speak a form of English called American English and absorb the American culture, bedecked and bemixed with ideas of their old world and the new world.

America’s demographic is in flux, becoming American, always making it richer. This is what makes America great not ethnocentrism, for that would be cultural ignorance. It is sharing, promoting, and making progress that makes America great. It is moving forward and not turning back the clock as the word “again” implies.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center website features a page titled “A Nation Built by Immigrants” and subtitled “America is strengthened by the contributions made by immigrants. For the U.S. Economy to flourish to its full potential, outdated immigration policy must be modernized.” In it, significant contributions by immigrants are illustrated and immigration myths are debunked. 

I urge everyone to browse through this website and learn how far this country has come from the days when we dispossessed the Native Americans from their homes and 4,000 Cherokee people died, when we enslaved our fellow man for profit, when we subjugated women to second class citizens, when we segregated our society into white and black lives, when we interned Japanese American citizens, and one in every ten died. No, that was not when America was great. That time is now and it will be tomorrow, always evolving to greater greatness as long as we allow diversity into the nation and open our minds to new cultures, new ideas, and new discoveries.

Quotes to Fit the Day

September 9, 2020
“To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others. ”
― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

May 11, 2020  
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them― Ray Bradbury


The corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused the largest number of shutdowns of businesses worldwide and  changed life as we know it. In the first week of April, more than half of the world’s population has received orders to shelter in place.  Will our economy and way of life ever come back? Experts agree that it will not until scientists have discovered a vaccine that will be accepted universally. That is not in the foreseeable future.

The world is undergoing a metamorphosis: climate change, rising oceans, weird bugs, rising temperature on Christmas Day and snow on Mother’s Day. As you ponder about what to do, enlighten yourself with reading the “good books”—the books that make you think about life in an alternative world. There are many of them. Here is a short list:

Animal Farm by George Orwell—an allegorical novella that tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury—a dystopian society where books are burned.

The Iron Heel by Jack London describes a futuristic world in which the division between the classes has deepened.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift—a satire on human nature and a parody on travel

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll about a young girl’s adventures in a dream.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley—a dystopian science fiction novel of a consumerist society. Margaret Atwood called it “either a perfect-world utopia or its nasty opposite,” depending on your point of view.

And of course:

The Hand Maid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and any of her other books.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins


Not everything is dystopian. Check out the following:

Lost Horizon by James Hilton—the mythical sanctuary of Shangri-La.

The Giver by Lois Lowry—a young adult novel about a young man who lives in a seemingly ideal world.


I will be posting a quote each day. Hopefully, it will inspire you to read some of the greatest works in literature.

Social Isolation During Pandemics

A Lesson from Giovanni Boccaccio

I am entering my second week of social isolation due to the pandemic of the COVID-19 virus. Home alone for many hours, my mind wanders through the literature of past contagions. A few books come to mind, but none like Bocaccio’s Decameron, written in the aftermath of the Black Death of 1348 in Florence. It is estimated that the plague claimed 40,000-60,000 lives of the city’s inhabitants (about half the population of the city), including Boccaccio’s father and stepmother.

 The Decameron is a book of one-hundred stories told by ten people, seven women and three men, who during the Black Plague, also known as the Black Death, sheltered themselves in a country villa for fourteen days. No one came in or went out in their version of social isolation. To pass the time in the absence of television, radio, recorded music, and social media, they told stories, each person one story for a total of ten stories a day for ten days—one-hundred stories in all. Two of the remaining days were dedicated to personal obligations and two to religious duties.

The Decameron’s translation in contemporary American English by Wayne A. Rebhorn is a delightful read, full of witticism and humor and certain to entertain for many days.

carried the bodies of the recently deceased out of their houses and put them down by the front doors, where anyone passing by, especially in the morning, could have seen them by the thousands. . . . When all the graves were full, enormous trenches were dug in the cemeteries of the churches, into which the new arrivals were put by the hundreds, stowed layer upon layer like merchandise in ships, each one covered with a little earth, until the top of the trench was reached.

Much like today, shops stood empty, and churches shut down. Unlike today, in spite of an intellectual and scientific awakening, there were no medicines or elaborate hospitals to care for the ill.

In the fourteenth century, in the bloom of the Italian Renaissance, the city of Florence, in fact, the whole of Italy, the mercantile class had emerged with economic power and prosperity. Meanwhile, the rediscovery of many ancient texts gave rise to an intellectual current that produced the likes of Michelangelo Buonarotti, (1475-1564), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Christopher Columbus, (1451-1506), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Martin Luther King (1483-1546), Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), and so many more that include William Shakespeare, Nicolo’ Macchiavelli, and John Calvin.

To this long list, I want to highlight two more memorable names: Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) was credited with inventing the printing press and, subsequently, introducing mass communication. The eponymous Project Gutenberg  is a website that I frequently visit to download absolutely free books in the public domain. If you are not familiar with this site, I urge you to explore it and get lost in the vast number of titles. Get inspired.

We all have a story to tell. Awaken your creative fountain and try your hand at story writing. Email your story to if you wish to post it in this blog to share with other readers.

Humanism or Religious Dogma

I was born a Humanist in a religious household, and that created a battle between the values taught at home and school and my developing mind. Parents and church would like say that I was born a Catholic, that I have no choice about that just as much as children born into a Jewish family or in any other faith have no choice about their religion. My mother sent me to Sunday school to learn Catechism with the same fervor and duty that parents of any religion instruct their children in the Torah if they are Jewish, in the Qur’an if they are Muslims, in meditation if Buddhists, and so on.

It was expected of me to embrace their Catholicism, their beliefs with all the dogmas. But participation in many church functions was often a chore, something I did out of obligation. Those times when I found them enjoyable involved my dressing up like a little bride for the first communion and confirmation ceremonies.

My lessons in catechism had me captivated with Bible stories told by Sister Agnes that were grimmer than Grimm’s fairy tales. But that’s all they were to me—just another type of fairy tales. Sister Agnes wanted me to believe that the stories were true, that they were events that happened long before time, and said that I had better believe them or I wouldn’t get to wear my pretty, white dress. I wanted to believe her stories, but I had many questions, and her answers generated more questions.

Q: If we come from Adam and Eve, where did they come from?
A: God created them.
Q: Who created God?
A: God is eternal.
Q: How do you know?
A: You must have faith.

Then came instruction in the Ten Commandments with its great principles of ethics and morality, except for the first commandment:

I am the Lord your God; you shall not have other gods besides me. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandment.

I had problems from the start. God was merciful, jealous and vengeful. How could that be? My young brain couldn’t put into words what my gut was telling me. If I didn’t pray to this God, then my children and grandchildren and their children’s children will be punished for my “iniquity.” I didn’t understand. I asked Sister Agnes, What is iniquity. She told me I was too young to understand and again told me to have faith. So I prayed to God to give me faith. But the word “mercy” in the same sentence with “jealous” followed by threats of vengeance toubled me. How can a person who is jealous and vengeful have mercy? Punish me, if you please, but leave my children out of this. There had to be a mistake.

The second commandment had me worried.

You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.

My father, a good man, used “the name of the LORD” in vain every time he had an emotional outburst, and he never apologized for it nor went to confession. For all his goodness, he was a damned man. Where was the merciful part of the good Lord?

I pushed aside the first two commandments because the other eight were pretty cool, especially the one about observing the Sabbath. But, wait a minute! Why did I have to go to Sunday school on my Sabbath day? Wasn’t that conflicting? Hypocritical? The questions kept sprouting. I asked, If God is all powerful, Why couldn’t he save my friend Lucy from the whooping cough? Why didn’t he stop the rain that overflowed the river and left people homeless? Why did he allow daddy to get hurt in the war? Why didn’t He stop the war?

Most of my secondary school years were spent in a sectarian boarding school with regimented daily routines and robotic religious services. These were my years of arrested development—educational, emotional, and social. When I returned home after four years of boarding school, I was incapable of independent thinking and acted out my gut feeling with rebellious outbursts.  

I rejected the religious teachings that had been passed on through generations. The dogmatic current of my indoctrination from home and school failed to grab me. Therefore, I did not drift away from religion as I was never taken in by it. This I recall as well as an incident when I was nine years old, when my mother expected me to receive the eucharist every Sunday. This ritual required a clean, empty stomach to receive the symbolic body of Christ. While my mother wasn’t looking, I took a sip of milk and left my white mustache on for her to see. It was my first act of conscious rebellion against her beliefs. 

My religious education continued through the years of middle school without any progress. I could not accept the existence of anything on faith. I needed empirical evidence, and the fact that someone was confined to a wheel chair and suddenly could walk was acceptance in blind faith. I needed something empirical, something to believe.  Who was I without the beliefs that defined generations of my bloodline? Nothing more than a spineless splotch of muscle and gook that couldn’t stand up to anything.

I had to find something to hold me up, that could give me what religion failed—a spiritual identity that I could live with. I delved into any book on religious philosophy and related literature that I could find. I could not embrace a dogmatic religion with dos and don’ts that other doctrines exhort, and I was still lost in nothingness.

I chanced upon The American Humanist Association through the widespread availability of internet searches. The key word that grabbed me to this site was the use of the word “progressive,” in its many ways. It appeared as part of the mission statement on its home page:

Advocating progressive values and equality for humanists, atheists, and freethinkers.

This same word showed up again in the first sentence that defined “What is Humanism.” Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life . . . Progressive—developing gradually, step by step, defined me best. It suited me like a pair of soft leather shoes with a sturdy sole and perfectly sized arch support that would wear out with use until it was time to update. Progressive. It was the antithesis of religious dogma, where belief in ancient doctrine was literally written in stone. I was reminded of a few lines of Walt Whitman’s poem “To the States.”

To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist
much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever after-
ward resumes its liberty

It takes more than courage to resist much. It takes an understanding to know what one is resisting to and, most of all, it takes maturity. It is a process of becoming. To obey little means standing up to authority, to question their dictates. It would be easy to give in to their demands, to live a life without conflicts. So many times I’ve been advised to “roll with the punches,” but I obeyed little and suffered the punches. I wish I had known of Walt Whitman then; I would have found strength in his words.

As humanist, I’m moving forward, wearing out old and tried doctrines, and developing over time. That development doesn’t stop but continues to happen with every breath I take, with every book I read, with every person I meet, with every port I visit.

Somewhere in the literature of Humanism I read that the universe is a dynamic force, that it is in a continuous flux. I’m a part of this force, infinitesimal as it may be on the universal scale but profound in one human being, Me.

The Challenge of Writing in a Second Language

Writing in a second language is a challenge, for sure, but the result is often superior to that of writing in the comfort of the first language. Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright and novelist, said that he wrote in French “out of a need to be ill equipped.” Indeed, there’s something to that. I am never comfortable writing in either of the two languages that I speak fluently. Italian is my native language, but my knowledge of it has never progressed beyond the basic communicative level necessary to carry on a social conversation. So for me writing in that language is out of the question.

English is my primary language—the language spoken where I live and in the country of my academic studies. I make a distinction to call English my “primary language” as opposed to my “second language” because of the assumption that the native language is always the primary one. In fact, I find that my native language falls deeper into the recesses of my psyche as the passage of time moves me farther away from the language of my birth, and my secondary language moves into the primary position. I talk about this process in Chapter 30 of my book Canaries Can’t Cry

Unlike Samuel Beckett who chose to write in his second language, I will always be ill equipped to write in any language. I doubt myself in every printed word and sentence that I write. Have I chosen the proper word? Have I used “that” in place of “who?” Is it, The man who won the race is Italian, or is it, The man that won the race is Italian?” I search the Thesaurus for choices and scour the dictionary definitions and examples of the word used in a sentence. Writing in a second language can be frustrating, racking, and intense. But this is the same process as writing in any language. The vocabulary search may be more intensive, more taxing, and outright exhausting, but that should be the same process for any serious writer, only more so for a foreigner.

Scholars of Teaching a Second Language agree that the process of writing is the same in any language—a continuum of thoughts in the active voice that follows a natural sequence. Thought B must follow thought A and thought C must follow thought B and so on to thought Z. This continuum of thoughts, one following the other, of cause and effect, of struggles and conflicts, leading to the final thoughts of resolution and dénouement is the same in any language. Whether you write for enjoyment or to break the boundaries of convention, the process of writing must follow the continuum.

Who are the authors who write in a second language?

As one author who confronts the challenge of writing in a second language, I stand in good company. Among the most well-known writers are:

  1. Samuel Beckett—born in Ireland, writes in a foreign language “out of a need to be ill equipped.” He received the Nobel prize in literature in 1969.
  2. Eva Hoffman was 13 when she moved to Canada and eventually to USA from Poland. She is the author Lost in Translation: A life in a New Language and several other fiction and nonfiction books.
  3. Jack Kerouac, French-Canadian, spoke a French dialect. He became a seminal figure of the literary beat movement with his On the Road, published in 1957.
  4. Milan Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia. He wrote in French The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Czech.
  5. Vladimir Nabokov, born in Russia, described himself as “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library.” Lolita sold 100,00 copies within the first couple of weeks of publication and is considered a classic of American literature.
  6. Joseph Conrad was born in Ukraine. His novels Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness rank among the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. He wrote in English, his third language. His native language is Polish.
  7. Khaled Hosseini was fifteen when his family emigrated from Afghanistan and was fluent in English within a year. He has chosen to write all his novels in English. Both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, his best known works, are novels set in his homeland, as is And the Mountains Echoed.
  8. Jhumpa Lahiri, was born in India and raised in the United States. She currently lives in Italy and started writing in Italian. Her first book (in English), Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. She claims that she has “felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.” A sentiment that I expressed in the title of my first book, Canaries Can’t Cry: Living with two flags in one heart.
  9. Junot Diaz was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 2008 for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. His native language is Spanish. Born in the Dominican Republic, he now lives in New York.
  10.  Ha Jin from China, Louis Begley from Poland, Edwidge Danticat from Hait, Aleksandar Hemon from Bosnia, Viet Thanh Nguyen from Vietnam. The list goes on

In a previous article I wrote how culture and language are intertwined. Some authors choose to write in a non-native language precisely because of the challenge of writing in the second language. They are not bound by the rules and convention of their native country. Romance languages for example, Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French, while sharing a common Latin root, they manifest their peculiar differences in stress, cadence, intonation, and pitch. However, they have a reputation for beautiful, flowery lyrics—a “no-no” in writing English. More on this in the following blogs. (Click here to subscribe).

Do these authors transfer their multicultural experience to their writing style? James Joyce wrote in English but away from his homeland. He had put a distance between the subject of his characters and their home. Could he have written Dubliners while still living in Ireland? One wonders! But it cannot be denied, the richness of cultures is reflected in the breadth of their works.



Galani Venice Style

Galani Venice Style

Whether it’s galani or crostoli, this fluffy, crispy, and mildly sweet delicacy is a staple in many home gatherings of families and friends from the Veneto-Dalmatian region. This region broadly includes northeast Italy from Verona to Trieste and all the Croatian coast and the many islands in the former Yugoslavia governed by Italy in the period between the two world wars.

It’s a cultural thing

I recently made a plateful of galani for a book signing event to share with my readers. I talk about galani in Chapter 25, Nostalgia, of my book Canaries Can’t Cry. It is a common occurrence in social gatherings to place of big bowl of galani in the center of the table with a jug of red wine, much the way Americans would put a bowl of potato chips and a pitcher of beer, except that the galani are always homemade. In the chapter Nostalgia, I meet for the first time my uncle and cousins from Sansego, now living in Hoboken. In the middle of the table, they had a big bowl of galani and a jug of Gallo wine.

I remember this gathering as a warm get-together that ended in folkloric songs of Dalmatia. For this reason, I will always have a soft spot for galani in my heart and a warm place for a bowl of that pastry strip on my table. I now fully embrace my American culture together with my Veneto-Dalmatian heritage, and on, occasion, I heartily put of bowl of potato chips on the table. It’s as heartwarming and as satisfying as galani. 

This blog is to share a bit of the social culture from my Dalmatian roots. I would be amiss if I did not include my family’s recipe in here.


1 cup flour, sifted, plus more for rolling the dough

1 egg

1 tbsp of sugar

1 tbsp of grappa

oil for frying

confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Optional: To the batter, you may add the zest of one lemon or orange, one tablespoon of butter, a pinch of salt


To make the galani dough, place the flour in a large bowl. Add the eggs, sugar, salt, lemon zest, and grappa.

Knead the dough with your hands until it comes together into a smooth, even ball (it should bounce back when gently pressed with a finger). Wrap the dough in a damp kitchen towel and leave to rest for one hour.

Next divide the dough into small portions and roll them thinly using a pasta machine (or a rolling pin), dusting them with flour at every passage. Cut the strips of dough into rectangles (about 3×1.5 in.). Make small cuts in the dough or twist it as desired.

Fill three-quarters of a deep, medium-sized skillet with light olive oil (or avocado or grapeseed oil) and set it over medium heat. When the oil is hot (355F), slip in a first batch (3-4) of crostoli. Fry them until deep-golden all over, for about 3 minutes (or less). Watch then carefully, as they turn golden very quickly. Drain them with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate lined with towel paper. When cool, dust them generously with fine sugar.

A holiday pleaser

Galani or crostoli is ubiquitous throughout Italy by many names and variations. From crostoli, in northern Italy, to chiacchere in Lombardi, to bugie, sfrappole, grostoli, cenci, and frappe, the ingredients very from the region to region. In Venice they use grappa, in Romagna they use rum. Sometimes orange or lemon zest is added to the dough. The variations are as limited only by one’s imagination. My sister-in-law, a wonderful cook from Bologna, sticks to the basic of one-one-one-one: one cup flour, one egg, one tablespoon sugar, one tablespoon rum. Double the ingredients, if desired.

In addition to being a party pleaser, galani is an essential ingredient to complement holiday festivities from natale to carnevale.

Buone feste. Happy holidays.

The Art of a Good Impression

La bella figura rules Italian behavior in every aspect of life—from the way you dress to the way to comport yourself and the way you speak, and, above all, table manners—all make up the impression you give others. La bella figura is a uniquely Italian concept of living with dignity and difficult for outsiders to comprehend.

There are no rules for what makes a good impression, la bella figura. Giovanni Della Casa (1503-56) wrote a set rules in his Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior to present to his nephew as a guide to simple decency. As important as acting upon polite behavior is learning what behavior to avoid. The successful man, must combine an exterior grace with a necessary social conformity. Anything that could give offense or reveal vulgar thoughts should be avoided.

What are these behaviors that make la bella figura? In the 2015 eBook release by Project Gutemberg, J. E. Spingarn describes that the Galateo’s real foundation of good manners is in the desire to please. “This desire is the aim or end of all manners, teaching us alike to follow what pleases others and to avoid what displeases them.”

These behaviors run the gamut from personal cleanliness to how to fold a table napkin. These include many dos and don’ts.

The “dos” “don’ts” seem obvious, but it is alarming how often people violate these basic rules of social behavior, and it behooves all of us to review them.

Among the Don’ts:

  • Don’t interrupt someone speaking.
  • Don’t speak loudly
  • Don’t pick your nose or teeth in public
  • Don’t eat with your mouth open
  • Don’t cough, sneeze or yawn in someone’s face
  • Don’t fall asleep in company
  • Don’t turn your back to your neighbor
  • Don’t get so close to a person as to breathe in his face
  • Don’t be careless about the way you sit
  • Don’t be too ceremonious or too servile
  • Don’t make chewing, lip-smacking noises with your food
  • When you blow your nose, do not look at your snots
  • When at a banquet, don’t sit turned to the person on your right or left giving your back to the person sitting next to you on the opposite side.

This list is by no means complete, but you get the idea. These manners of behavior may sound obvious and laughable but think of how many people you know who are guilty of one or more such social infractions.

The list continues, but you get the idea. Now for the Dos:

Italians use formal language when speaking to strangers or to people in a higher-level position, such as the boss. The singular pronoun “you” has two forms, the informal tu (you), used when speaking with a friend, and the formal lei (which does not have an equivalent in English) when speaking with a stranger. To use the informal tu in a situation that calls for the formal lei is a gross error of social ethics and will make la brutta figura, give the bad impression.

  • Cleanliness is foremost in manners and predates Biblical times. In certain ancient religions cleanliness related to spiritual purification. Despite the oft repeated phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” some clergymen insist that the church never objected to bathing “provided one indulged in it out of necessity and not for the sake of pleasure.” However, cleanliness in Della Casa’s Renaissance was a mere act to please others and to insure social status.
  • When in a supermarket or in one of the many popular farmer markets wear a plastic glove, supplied in any markets, when selecting the produce. To touch food in the bin or shelf with bare hands is considered impolite and will give occasion la brutta figura, the bad impression.

Through all the many rules of dos and don’ts it is significant to notice that Italians are a contradiction in themselves. Speaking loudly and shouting across the street is a common practice in many towns and villages. They have little patience for keeping their place in line without an audible annoyance and will wear flip flops and spaghetti-strap knit tops without sense of style.

Every town and country has its own code of social behavior. When traveling to a foreign country, it befits one to learn a bit of the cultural code of ethics to avoid a reputation attributed to a whole flock of geese rather than the goose or, worse, offending the people of that country by a wrong gesture. “The Ugly American” is a phrase popularized by the title of a 1958 book by Eugene Burdick, which gave a blistering account of Americans abroad who remain insensitive to other cultures.

  • Hand gestures, too, have different meanings in different countries. Joining the thumb with the index finger in America means “OK,” but in other parts of the world it has a scatological connotation and is insulting.

Today Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo is universally accepted as the standard code of social ethics with the latest printing as recent as 2016. La bella figura is best understood as the desired extrinsic value of a character that produces admiration by others. It is superficial and yet all important because, as the saying goes, first impressions last a long time. For a more recent study on manners, America has Emily Post’s Etiquette.

As with everything, rules of social behavior change with time and culture. Be sure to read about accepted social behavior in the host country of your travels.


The Fellowship of Language and Culture

My native language is a dialect of Croatia known as Sansegoto, spoken in Sansego, but I never learned to speak it. There once were almost three thousand people on that island; today, there are less than three hundred. A famine following World War II and the war itself forced them to leave. My mother escaped from the island with her children and crippled husband, carrying me in her arms. I was thirteen months old, and the first language I learned to speak was Italian. However, I exist in a culture of three languages.

I have been exposed to it in my formative years through my mother’s circle of family and friends. I picked up a few words here and there and many bleep words. However, I learned their culture not through the vocabulary of the language but through every nuance of the dialect, every inflection in the sound, the modulation of the speech, the gasp, the snicker, and the laughter in the voice. They are as different from Italian or English as is the culture associated with each vernacular.

Language and culture are organic and intertwined. Lectures, books, and videos will teach vocabulary and stringing together words to form a sentence. But the learner has not learned the language unless she also immerses herself in the culture, for Development of a culture cannot occur without communication, and communication cannot develop without language. For this reason, once the student has acquired a basic vocabulary, the teacher will immerse her into the relevant folklore and literature that has influenced morality, lifestyles, and manners of the country.

“More than 650 new words, senses, and subentries have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in its latest update, October 2019, including fake news, xoxo, Jedi, and mind trick. More than 1,400 new words, senses, and subentries have been added in the quarter ending June 2019, including bae, yeesh, and hasbian.” In January 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced that it has added more than 1,100 words, senses, and sub-entries. Culture has changed and so has language. Dictionaries in other tongues will have their own lexicon metamorphosis according to the time and culture of their countries.

Language and culture are intertwined

My primary language is Italian at the basic conversational level. That’s as far as I got in my Italian school, enough to function and carry on a conversation, but not good enough to read Umberto Eco. To do that, I must rely on translation. I had lived in Italy, had my little friends, played girlish games with them, and learned family values. Too young to have acquired cognitive language, I understood the culture and where I fit. Eight years later I was uprooted to America and my Italian vocabulary dwindled in the process of acquiring English while I added American culture to my background without subtracting the others.

It is what happens to every immigrant that, in the process of gaining cognitive proficiency in a new language, the primary language becomes secondary. It is within this backdrop that I stutter when people ask me, Where are you from?

I am neither from here nor from there. I am from all the places that have touched me. To say that I am Italian would deny my cultural exposure with everything American and with my deeper core of Croatian culture. It is a matter of personal identity defined by exposure to languages and cultures that reached me through home environment, education, and travel.

Do Not Burst My Bubble

What is the color of your bubble?

There are many kinds of bubbles, some created by nature, as the bubbles in a geyser pool or the bubbles left after waves have receded on the shoreline, and the bubbles created by man, such as a soap bubble, an economic boom bubble, and the “living in your own fantasy” kind of bubble. Whatever the nature of the bubble, we like them all.

Bubble in nature is a thin sphere of liquid enclosing air or other gas. It is hollow and light, and beautiful to watch. It floats in the air but is not contaminated by it. You can only see a bubble from the outside and marvel at the lightness and purity of this ball, and you grasp that it is fragile. A little gust of air; a little dryness of the moisture around it will pop it. Bursting of the bubble is inevitable. Its brief flight brings the joy of childhood to the young and old. And we watch it float higher and higher to where it bursts. And then smile.

The economic bubble—Because of its beautiful, fragile nature, we call a bubble many situations of exuberant optimism that are bound to burst at the peak of their performance, such as the bubble in an economic boom, whether in the stock market, housing, or tulips. A bubble brings prosperity, but this prosperity comes at a price. We know that eventually the bubble will burst, and so we live in it with apprehension. When it does burst, we do not smile as when watching the thin sphere of liquid pop. However, the weight of apprehension of this pending downfall is lifted, and we wait with feet on the ground to catch the ride of the next bubble.

The next bubble the one created by your own phantasy.  This bubble is not created by outside forces but rises from within your ego and does not burst  spontaneously. Other people must act on it by injecting a little turbulence to your fragile ego. “Hate to bust your bubble, but, …” If your skin is tough, the turbulence will hardly affect you. However, if it persists, prepare yourself for a new reality.

In all definitions, a bubble is ephemeral and beautiful, and it comes with a great warning: DO NOT TOUCH. The moment you touch it, it bursts.

This brings me to another kind of bubblethe kind the gives me temporary flight from the abrasiveness of the world I live in. This is where I escape to keep my blood temperature from rising and my cold shoulder from freezing.

I live in a bubble and I like it. 

I like surrounding myself with people who are like-minded. It is my way of coping with living in a community whose majority holds diametrically opposed views from religion to politics. I cannot quit my society, nor do I want to. I value mixing in the company of people who think differently. To discuss a preconceived notion with others of the opposing opinion keeps my mind agile; although somewhat aciculated, but the scratches are inflicted both ways. That’s when I retreat to my bias bubble, to seek the company of people who share my views and apply a balm of soothing words to my wounded ego.

We all have our bias bubble along all points of the ideological spectrum. It is attached to us like an anchor up to a sailing ship. We drop the hawser whenever we’re bruised by words and seek retreat in the harbor of our bias bubble—the chamber that echoes our views regarding our social, religious and political issues.

As much as I like the warmth of my bias bubble, I recognize that it’s not healthy to live in it. It’s necessary to step out of that comfort zone and allow myself to get scratched. I’m reminded of the movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen in the role of father to his estranged son. He lives in the bubble of a country club life that burst when he learns of his son’s death. It is then that he’s forced to step out of his comfort zone and to experience a profoundly affecting transformation.


I feel good in the company of those who, like me, are struggling to hobnob with the opposition. I also feel good when I engage in an open discussion of opposing ideas without proselytizing. Failing this, I find comfort in retreating to a safe place, where my values, ethics, and scruples are accepted without controversy.

This life is enriched by exposure and open mindedness to all beliefs and ideas. There is no right way or wrong way of believing. There is only a difference of opinion, and it behooves us to be receptive and even admit the other party may have a valid point. As the cliché goes, ”two minds are better than one.”

It is an optimist’s world to be able to circulate among all parties and speak openly without giving or receiving offense. In such a world, there would be no need to retreat to the comfort of a bias bubble. I’m not optimistic that such a world will evolve in my lifetime. Until it does, I will seek retreat to my bias bubble. So, please do not burst my bubble.